From Lloyd George to Tony Blair

As Tony Blair's testimony to the Iraq Inquiry reveals his informal style of sofa cabinet, Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal raises a historical parallel
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
29 January 2010

Having just read Andrew Blick and George Jones’ piece decrying ‘the department of the prime minister’ within the cabinet office, I was reminded of my past research into the foreign policy making of the Lloyd George government. Lloyd George, fondly remembered for the people’s budget and political reform, was the father of the “sofa government” that Blair’s period in office gave name to. Rather than having the “traditional sole focus upon supporting the Cabinet” that Blick and Jones hope it will revert to, the Cabinet Office was established for the very purpose of extending Lloyd George’s control as premier, with its first secretary Maurice Hankey accordingly becoming a hated figure among members of the divided national coalition.

Supplementary to the Cabinet Office was the still more nefarious Prime Minister’s Secretariat, a cabal of handpicked advisors to the Prime Minister who operated from sheds at the back of number ten, earning their nickname “the garden suburb”. One such unelected advisor, Philip Kerr, later Lord Lothian, was in effect a second foreign minister, drafting notes to foreign heads of state which were poured over as the voice of Lloyd George, while AJ Sylvester and Edward Grigg became unofficial envoys, visiting foreign embassies in London and cutting diplomatic deals over the head of Curzon’s foreign office.

Lloyd George put this private bureaucracy to greatest use to encourage Greece in its war against Turkey, the extent of which only became known thanks to British intelligence intercepts of Greek reports of meetings with the PM and his advisors being passed on to the foreign office. These revealed that Lloyd George and co negotiated arms deals for the Greek army during an official embargo and pledged British financial support that never materialised – leading to the catastrophic defeat of Greek forces and their retreat from Turkey – all behind the back of cabinet colleagues and other departments of government.

The Cabinet Office no doubt needs tighter controls – perhaps it should be scrapped altogether given its dubious history. But the modern history of Number 10 suggests more needs to be done. The unelected individuals appointed as advisors need to be subject to greater scrutiny in parliament and the press, and their interests and roles declared. The impact of new technology and communications on the balance of power within cabinet also needs attention. The aeroplane gave premiers the opportunity to fly to distant summits and appear in person, relegating the role of foreign diplomats, while radio and television gave such theatrics a mass audience – both developments increased the power of no 10 vis a vis the foreign office. Now a prime minister who makes YouTube broadcasts and entertains popular petitions over the internet, no matter how token these attempts at direct exchanges with the electorate are, unveils policies without cabinet debate.

Of course, the extent of these underhand dealings only became apparent with the declassification of memoranda and bequeath of the papers and correspondence of those involved long after the event (by which time it was of interest to a scant few historians). Working as a historian on the Lloyd George government, I was frustrated by the knowledge that so much more of significance was left unwritten and lost to posterity. With communication by email and mobile phone and the caution bred by the fear of Freedom of Information requests added into the mix, the task of future historians deciphering Blair’s government will be all the more difficult. Still, I would be by no means be surprised if the informality of government that has been hinted at in the Iraq inquiry and other publically available sources will decades hence be backed by substantial documentary proof of covert pledges and actions on behalf of Number 10 no less sinister or calamitous in their consequences.

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